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Charity Auctions: Frequently Asked Questions

Before you dive in to planning your nonprofit’s next charity auction, let’s cover some of the main questions that arise surrounding these fundraising events:

What are the different types of charity auctions?


There are two main types of charity auctions:

  • Live: When you think of auctions, live auctions are probably what comes to mind. During this type, a high-energy auctioneer presents items and accepts bids in real-time, with guests placing bids either by raising their paddles or speaking out.
  • Silent: During a silent auction, items are placed around a venue space and guests are able to peruse them on their own time. Bids are placed by writing down basic contact information and the bid amount on a piece of paper called a bid sheet. This type of auction is often paired with an event, such as a gala, as the auction can occur in the background as the main event entertainment goes on.

These are the two main types of charity auction; however, as many nonprofit events pivoted to the virtual sphere in 2020, so did auctions.


Can you host a charity auction online?


In short — yes!


Virtual auctions have quickly emerged as the third type of charity auction. These events are held fully online, with guests joining from their own locations. These auctions are most often hosted using some sort of virtual auction software, which allows guests to browse items, place bids, and purchase the items they’ve won.


The type of auction you choose to host will depend on a few factors. For example, you’ll want to consider whether you want the auction itself to be the main event or if you’ll want additional elements alongside it. Another key factor will be whether or not your supporters want to return to in-person events, or if they prefer virtual engagement!


How do charity auctions work?


Regardless of the type of charity auction you choose to host, the general progression of the event from start to finish will be the same. All auctions progress through the following timeline:

  1. Guests arrive at the physical event or “log on” to the virtual experience.
  2. Bidding opens and guests can start placing bids on items of interest.
  3. Guests bid back-and-forth, battling it out for top items. For an in-person auction live or silent, this process might last an hour or so; for a virtual silent auction, this process could be extended anywhere from a few days to multiple weeks.
  4. Bidding closes. Guests should be given a time warning at regular intervals leading up to bidding closing, so they don’t miss out on putting in their final bids before the event closes!
  5. Guests who won items pay for those items and collect their prizes.

Then, the event is over and your team pivots to thanking guests for their participation and generous contributions throughout the event, just as you would with any other fundraising event.


How do you plan a charity auction?


Use the following checklist to begin planning a charity auction for your team:

  1. Determine the type of auction you want to host, whether a silent, live, or virtual auction. You may also combine the types– such as by hosting a virtual silent auction.
  2. Set the general parameters for your event. This includes the date, budget, and fundraising goals.
  3. Invest in any tools needed to bring your event to life. For example, you might choose to invest in auction or mobile bidding software for a virtual event.
  4. Procure items. Appoint a team with the task of procuring auction items. They should both use their existing networks as well as reach out to new connections for your nonprofit.
  5. Begin ironing out the logistics of your event. This includes securing a venue and catering (if applicable), hiring an auctioneer (if hosting a live event), figuring out how you’ll display items during the event, solidifying the checkout process, and outlining any guest engagement tactics that you’ll use throughout the event.
  6. Market the event. A multichannel marketing strategy that combines both paper and digital methods is key to sharing your event with the largest audience possible.
  7. Host the event. After the event wraps up, it’s time to thank all guests with personalized and genuine notes of gratitude.

Similar to galas, charity auctions are the perfect contender for annual events. So, if your charity auction is successful, take a few minutes after the event to analyze its success with your team! What worked, and what didn’t? What can you improve for next year’s event? When you begin planning your next auction, you’ll be grateful for the analysis you did previously.

Charity Auction Items to Kick-Off Your Brainstorming

A charity auction is only as successful as the items your team procures. After all, if guests aren’t interested in bidding on the items, you won’t raise much at all!


Speaking generally, a successful auction item will meet two criteria. It will be:

  1. Hard for guests to find elsewhere and purchase themselves.
  2. Tailored to meet your audience’s interests.

So, for example, if you’re hosting an auction and your guests are families with young children, you’d be better served with a full Disney experience bundle (hard to acquire and tailored to audience) than an average set of two tickets to a local haunted house (easy to acquire and not family-friendly).


With that in mind, the items you procure should be tailored to your specific auction event and audience. It’s worthwhile to dedicate time to brainstorming on the front end to ensure you acquire items that will sell at your event.


To help kick-off your item procurement brainstorming, here are a few auction items that tend to sell successfully and can apply to a number of different audiences:

  • Travel Package: Guests can purchase tickets and book a hotel themselves– but, it can be a headache to coordinate all of the details themselves! Create a travel package that includes plane tickets, hotel or resort accommodations, and even pre-booked excursions and activities.
  • Signed Memorabilia: Memorabilia signed by athletes and musicians is fairly easy to secure and auction off. If your organization has an existing connection with a famous individual, you can ask them to contribute a signed item (jersey, guitar, etc.). If not, you can also visit an online memorabilia auction house (such as Pristine Auction for sports memorabilia) and purchase items that are already authenticated. Remember, you’ll only want to auction off items that come with a verified certificate of authentication.
  • Baskets: A basket is a great way to combine multiple lower-value items into one appealing item. Start by choosing a theme, such as Mixology, Grillmaster, Tailgating/Superfan, Movie Night/Game Night, or something along those lines. Then, begin procuring items that fit the theme, and assemble them in a large basket! For example, a GrillMaster basket could include meat seasonings and rubs, barbeque sauce, grill tools, a cookbook, an apron, and other similar items.
  • Custom Artwork: Ask a local artist to create a unique work for your specific event. Or, even better, coordinate a collaboration project between a local artist and an individual who benefits from your nonprofit’s work (such as a child who has cancer, who has had treatments funded by a cancer-focused nonprofit). Then, auction off the one-of-a-kind result!
  • One-in-a-Lifetime Event Tickets: This would be your SuperBowl, Masters, or even U.S. Open tickets– essentially, the events that are hard for the average individual to secure a ticket for. You’ll likely need to leverage connections to acquire the tickets, but if you’re able to, they’re likely to be purchased for much higher than you initially paid to acquire them!

Leverage your connections in your local community, both individuals and businesses, to seek donated items and experiences. You may need to purchase some items– if so, aim to only purchase items that you can comfortably anticipate raising bids at least 2x the purchase price. That way, you can ensure it’s worthwhile for your nonprofit!

Additional Charity Auction Resources

Want to learn more about hosting a charity auction for your organization? Explore the following additional educational resources: